CLA Sponsored Talk: "Some Puzzles re: Sex, Gender, and Race--and correlated isms."

Helga Varden (University of Illnois)

Friday, February 2nd, 2024 (12:10-2:00 PM) Erhart (Building 10) Room 0220



Much philosophy presupposes that personal or social identities can be analyzed through the same philosophical lens. In this talk, I will argue that we have good reasons to think that this is clearly not the case, before zooming in on some puzzles arising when we try to give a philosophical account of sexual/gender identity, sexual orientation, and socialization, including their correlated isms. This diversity in our accounts of such categories, I argue, is important not only for understanding these aspects of ourselves, but also as we take on the difficult challenges of transforming our inherited legal and political institutions into better ones.


I am currently working on my second monograph, tentatively called Transforming Our Social Contracts (OUP). In it, I present a new Kantian theory of justice as freedom that makes appropriate space for both our diverse, embodied, social natures and our difficult histories, in part, by bringing to the fore questions, reflections, and ideas that always should have been central to these conversations in the philosophical tradition. I argue that neither ideal nor non-ideal political theories can, on their own, capture all that is necessary to reveal patterns and pockets of injustice in ostensibly just societies, and I offer a unified alternative: a more complex theory that can help us envision how to build better and more just civil institutions and societies. As with most of my work, the book strives to bridge several divides in our philosophical practice, including those between continental and analytic traditions, historical and non-historical approaches, and ideal and non-ideal theories.

Transforming Our Social Contracts builds on the work begun in my first book, Sex, Love, and Gender: A Kantian Theory (OUP 2020). Sex, Love, and Gender presents a holistic Kantian philosophical account—the first of its kind— of the structures of our human phenomenology and explores core related moral (ethical and legal) issues, such as abortion, the evil of sexual violence, complexities surrounding the selling and buying of sexual services, the legal institution of marriage, and sexual or gendered identities and sexual orientations. The first part lays out a Kantian moral psychological and ethical theory of sex, love, and gender, while the second part of Sex, Love, and Gender treats rightful uses of coercion in relation to sex, love, and gender. Overall, the book uses Kant’s practical philosophical tools, in conversation with other relevant thinkers, to provide a critique of emotionally healthy, morally justifiable, and responsible forms of sexual, loving, and gendered being and of sexual and gendered wrongdoing and oppression. This book won the North American Kant Society 2023 Senior Scholar Prize for the best Kant book published in the years 2020, 2021, and 2022. 

 In addition to these books, I have published numerous articles in all my main areas of research interest: Kant’s practical philosophy; (the history of) legal-political philosophy (esp. Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Kant, Rawls, Arendt, and Nozick); (the history of) feminist philosophy (esp. Beauvoir); (the history of) social philosophy (race, sex, and gender); applied ethics; moral psychology; philosophical anthropology.


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